Beads and Beakers: Heirlooms and Relics in the British Early Bronze Age

By Woodward, Ann | Antiquity, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Beads and Beakers: Heirlooms and Relics in the British Early Bronze Age


Woodward, Ann, Antiquity


The idea that artefacts have biographies, with complex life cycles, is not a new one. The book The social life of things (Appadurai 1986a) has been influential amongst archaeologists, but very few detailed analyses of specific biographical trajectories have been undertaken (e.g. Skeates 1995). Using two examples of Early Bronze Age data, this study attempts to develop the line of enquiry and to distinguish between some different types of life cycle. Objects, like people, may have possessed extended biographies. From the moment of production an artefact may have passed through several different spheres of use and meaning (Kopytoff 1986). It may have gone out of use for short or long periods due to deliberate storage, burial or other forms of deposition. Subsequently items may have been recovered and, in whole or in part, returned to circulation within, the human environment. Thus some items may have experienced extremely prolonged, but maybe interrupted, biographical journeys.

At the outset it may be useful to differentiate between valuables and more mundane artefacts. Valuable items, whether defined by their complexity of production, such as a sword or polished stone axe, or by their exotic raw material, e.g. gold, jet or amber, may well have possessed very long life cycles. However, the studies of abrasion, fragmentation and context that might enlighten their life stories have seldom been attempted. Valuables might appear to be the classic candidates for the role of heirlooms in early society. However, the definition of an heirloom is `any piece of personal property that has been in a family for several generations' (OED, author's emphasis). The social value of an object is not related solely to its intrinsic exotic worth, but also to the value that it has accrued over the years in relation to specific human individuals, to families or to other social groupings, or to its significance in systems of reciprocity or exchange. As Appadurai (1986b) has emphasized, certain items become valuables through sequences of exchange and overt display in the social environment.

One way such long-lived valuables might be recognized in the archaeological record is if they occur as fragments. Indeed it has been postulated that some of artefacts in the Balkan Neolithic and Copper Age were manufactured so that they would easily break into recognizable pieces which could be exchanged within social networks (Chapman 2000:70-79 & 104). This phenomenon of fragmentation links the two case studies offered in this paper. Amber spacer beads are fragments from the original composite crescentic necklaces of which they formed components, and large portions of Beakers are pieces from vessels that originally were complete. The amber beads have an intrinsic, exotic value; the Beaker portions may have been less exotic, but appear to have been imbued with a very high value in social terms. It is argued that both functioned as heirlooms. However, this overarching interpretation does carry with it the implication that all heirlooms were subjected to similar patterns of deposition. It is difficult to assemble firm evidence for the processes of temporary curation, long-term storage or interim deposition that might have been involved. However, it can be suggested that intrinsic valuables might have been secreted on or off the body in small bags, pouches or boxes, or worn as bodily ornament. They may have been taken out from time to time for purposes of ritual display, or engagement in cycles of gift giving or exchange. It seems unlikely that large pieces of pottery were preserved in this way, although it is not impossible that part of an antique vessel could have been stored in a cloth or box. One other possible process whereby important vessels, or parts of them, may have been preserved temporarily has been identified and considered in some detail, namely the process of midden formation. Special pots, either complete or broken, may have been deposited within middens, perhaps after feasting episodes, and parts of them retrieved at later dates. …

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